Category Archives: Blog

The Solution to Flash: A Modest Proposal

Many folks have been voicing their concerns about Adobe’s Flash player plugin. Without it, there would be no advertising on the Internet. We could play phenomenally fun games written in Javascript, and all our video would be delivered via HTML5. And finally, FINALLY, our whirring laptop fans would be quieted, and our computers would only ever use 1% CPU power … which means we could save a ton of money by buying less powerful computers. Happy day!

Many of you have only taken the first step to ridding your life of Flash by installing the ClickToFlash browser plugin, which promises to “rid the web of the scourge that is Adobe Flash, but still retain the ability to view Flash whenever you want”. But who in their right mind would even want to see Flash content?? What self-respecting disciple of latter-day web browsing would smugly point out in web forums that “i use ClickToFlash”, when the answer is not less Flash – it’s no Flash.

Let’s face it: Flash has had its day. It was a GREAT technology for 1987, but we’ve moved on. We have touch interfaces now, and there’s no way that such a decrepit technology could ever keep up.

Touch interfaces, people. It’s the friggin’ future.

Why be content with apartheid when genocide is readily available? The final solution to the Flash question is not to merely quarantine Flash, but to completely eradicate it from your system.

The answer has been front of our noses all along, buried in an Adobe tech note: How to uninstall the Adobe Flash Player plug-in and ActiveX control. Just follow those simple instructions, and you won’t have to worry about Flash ever again! You’ll be able to enjoy that idyllic web paradise foretold by futurists and sages for time immemorial.

Enjoy!

Snow Jobs

i’m sure i’ll be one of many, many, people dismantling Steve Jobs’s recent argument against Flash line by line, but the more voices chiming in to combat Apple’s spin on the subject, the better. Jobs’s article reminded me a lot of the US political campaigns that we Canadians watch from a distance, shaking our heads … the truth is pretty clear to us, but it’s fascinating to see how the powers that be twist words and spout half-truths in an effort to sway uninformed public opinion. This is exactly what Jobs is doing with his argument: it’s pure politics, baby.

Vote

As corporations more closely resemble countries, their PR more closely resembles political tap-dancing.

Here are a few glaring Fox News-like issues i had with what he said:

they [Adobe] say we want to protect our App Store – but in reality it is based on technology issues.

Yes, and the Iraq war wasn’t about oil, but about removing a cruel dictator and bringing democracy to the Middle East. And Osama Bin Laden didn’t attack the twin towers because of America’s meddling and destructive foreign policies, but because he “hates our freedom.” Lines like these are so hideously transparent and bald-faced they get my bile brewing.

Make no mistake: more free games on iPlatforms outside of Apple’s control means less money for Apple. This is so undeniable, it mystifies me that he’s even trying to spin it. This one statement paints the rest of his article with a dishonest brush.

Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc.

Pot, meet kettle. Jobs goes on to point out that “Apple has many proprietary products too”, but goes to laboured lengths to uphold WebKit as the shining example of open web technology. Forget the iPod, iPad, iPhone, App Store, and the closed technologies that are at the center of this debate. We’ve got WebKit. In magician’s parlance, this is called misdirection: get the audience to focus the shiny coin in your left hand, while you pocket the Eiffel Tower with your right.

Bullshit

You tell ‘em, boys.

HTML5 … lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins

The implication here, though not explicit, is that HTML5 can do what Flash can do. This simply isn’t the case. While many writers have focused on the fact that HTML can run video admirably, they’ve glossed over the fact that with Flash, you can put that video on a 3D plane, map it to a cube, spin the cube, and on click make the cube explode into a flock of bats, with each bat holding a placard that has another embedded video on it, and all those videos have cue points that change the values in a web form. Some of you will argue “wait! Just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you should!” Of course, i’m offering a ridiculous example, but the fact remains that HTML5 simply cannot do what Flash can do. And if you want to claim that video is enough, then i’ll happily leave you behind in the Old World and continue exploring the Wild West, and its ever-expanding realm of possibilities. And whorehouses.

Marlene

Golly! You shore do look purdy, Miss Marlene.

There are more games and entertainment titles available for iPhone, iPod and iPad than for any other platform in the world.

This is a lie, plain and simple. There are more entertainment and game titles on the venerable PC platform than the 2-year-old App Store could ever dream of. You can call an elephant a house cat all you like – you’re still going to need an awfully big litter box.

In addition, Flash has not performed well on mobile devices.

From what i’ve seen, i’ll actually hand it to Jobs on this one. i have yet to see a convincing tech demo by Adobe showing a practical piece of Flash (ie something other than the sleazy swarming coloured dots) moving at anything above zero frames a second on an Apple device. But the stuff i’ve seen running on Android looks a lot smoother.

Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices.

“Most” is not a statistic. There is no empirical research behind the word “most”. Wikipedia calls this a weasel word – it’s like saying “some have said that Steve Jobs has a third nipple”. Really? Who? Who, specifically, has said that? Because you’re not backing your words up with actual data, you’re being a weasel. Knock it off, Triple-Tits.

A less slimy way of putting this would be to say that “Flash developers who want their games and websites to take advantage of the new touch screen interfaces developed by companies among which are Apple because we’re not the bloody progenitors of this interface style may have to redesign some elements of their projects … much the same way that web developers have decided to redesign their websites to offer more smart phone-friendly layouts.”

Weasel

OHAI!

If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript?

Because the time difference between removing a few rollovers and learning an entirely new technology and re-coding a project from the ground up is immense, you git.

Even if iPhones, iPods and iPads ran Flash, it would not solve the problem that most Flash websites need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices.

Even if Apple were to release a new iPhone that had, say, an increased resolution somewhere between the resolution of the iPhone and new screen resolution introduced by the iPad, it would not solve the problem that most Apps would need to be rewritten to support all three resolutions, as well as a growing number of operating systems that lack backwards compatible feature sets.

Oh snap!

Fourth, there’s battery life.

Jobs focuses on video here. That’s fine – there may be well-documented benchmarks there. But i don’t really watch video on my iPod – i play games. And some of those games suck juice like a Hoover. If Flash was on the iPhone, and there was a less battery-intensive reason to use non-Flash video, that option is there for me (that is, as long as the video is available in a non-Flash format). But the implication here is wider: Flash drains the battery. That’s the buzz that Jobs is hoping people will disseminate from this article.

We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

Again, outrageous. Apple would not be at anyone’s mercy if a third-party developer was slow to implement new features; rather, it’s the third-party developer and their customers that would be at Apple’s mercy, trying to keep up with their relentless device upgrades and planned obsolescence.

The other thing that galls me about this bit is that if Apple has such an issue with third-party devs, why is there no mention of Unity in this article? If that’s really such a problem for them you’d think Unity would be in the same boat. But they’re not. This is clearly a battle between Apple and Adobe, so Steve’s last point falls flat. As Mike Chambers from Adobe said last week, in reference to the Terms of Service change disallowing any App store submission that was not created with Apple’s own language and tools,

While it appears that Apple may selectively enforce the terms, it is our belief that Apple will enforce those terms as they apply to content created with Flash CS5.

Bushmouth

i have no filter when i speak, and i’ve been told that i’m honest to a fault. Perhaps that’s why i wish Steve would stop spinning this issue, and say what he means. It’s like when George Bush went on teevee after dethroning Saddam Hussein, when the Iraqi people started setting their oil fields on fire. Bush urged them not to do that, saying something like “that oil is your inheritance, a valuable resource that will help you attain your freedom and blah blah blah apple pie Little House on the Prairie bikini contest.” i just wish he would have said “Now don’t set those oil fields on fire, because … because THAT’S MY OIL, BITCHES! And ima spend three trillion dollars of my country’s money sending troops over there to collect every last drop. Yeehaw! Remember the Alamo!”

Bomb

My political leanings aside, it makes me a tiny bit sad to live in a world where, increasingly, you can pass off a bald-faced lie as a talking point for inexperienced “citizen journalists” to distill and disseminate across the Internatz. When you start seeing bloggers post “FLASH IS BAD FOR iPHONE BATTERY LIFE”, you can think back to this article.

For my part, i’m going to play along and generate a sound bite of my own: Apple fuels its App Store by drinking the blood of Christian babies. Happy blogging!

Further Reading

The HTML5 Experience on the iPad:



Jammed

TOJam, this city’s premiere game industry event, has come and gone. As you may well know, the jam is a weekend-long expo where game developers young and old (but mostly young), male and female (but mostly male), from all walks of life (but mostly white) descend on an ever-changing venue with one purpose and one purpose only: to consume ungodly quantities of Cool Ranch Doritos (but mostly to make games).

This year’s event, the fifth annual, was held at the new George Brown campus on the second floor of the Autodesk building, where i taught Flash in the school’s new game development program before opening my big fat mouth. The facility is brand-spanking new as of January, with four classrooms filled with obscenely powerful computers running Maya, Max, Flash, Photoshop, and all the other goodies you could hope for. Jammers had the choice of using the school’s computers or bringing their own. i was tucked into one of the two classrooms where the monstrous monitors had been removed, and we set up our own equipment.

Autodesk Toronto

The turn-out this year was huge. The 180 slots were handily packed up, with another 20 or so on the waiting list. The sponsors, including Tall Tree Games and Big Blue Bubble, kept jammers stoked with junk food – candy bars, energy drinks, chips, Chinese food, and pizza. Two jammers brought in their own baked goods, including chocolate chip oatmeal cookies and 200-odd cheese tarts. My body was screaming for a sprig of broccoli by the end of it -i nearly ate the foliage outside the building to keep from passing out. But cheese is a definite crowd-pleaser.

Exodus from ScaryTown

There were some misgivings, including by the organizers themselves, that the Jam had lost its soul by moving out of Innovation Toronto, a terrifying warehouse in the rapey-est part of town where the last two Jams were held. i disagree – i think the only thing we lost by not being in that building was the constant threat of tetanus. This year, the toilets worked, the stairwells were devoid of dead rodents, and no one had to climb on the roof to secure a tarp over the skylight to keep the rain out. The only real drawback was the classroom layout of the campus, which meant that we couldn’t all be together in the same room. But as the Jam gets bigger, i think that’s just going to be a necessity … unless and until the organizers attain the legendary goal of booking the Toronto Convention Center for the event.

Innovation Toronto

Innovation Toronto (photo by NotSoftGames, who i believe were gunned down in a mafia street war moments after taking this picture)

Every year, the organizers choose a theme to guide the teams’ creative output. This year, the theme was “Missing”. Apparently, what i was missing was the focus and wherewithal to produce a decent game. i found the theme really challenging this year, and i’m so focused on our current project that i worry my heart wasn’t completely in it.

But some teams’ hearts WERE in it, in a big way. Here are a few of the games that i enjoyed playing during the Sunday night wrap-up:

Throw That Fight!

This was my fave game at the event. It was very clever. It had a 1930′s theme and style. You play a pugilist who has to throw his boxing match for some reason involving an orphan … the story copy was a bit screwed up at the beginning so i missed the rationale, but what followed was my favourite line from the game from your trainer: “Remember your signature punches: up, left, and right.” (HAHAHAHAHA!)

So it was a rhythm game with the exact same mechanic as Elite Beat Agents, except that you weren’t allowed to play it properly, because you’d accidentally win the match and punch the other guy out. And you couldn’t play like ass either, because the game would say you made it look too unconvincing. You had to screw up the rhythm game just enough to throw the fight, and to not let on that you were playing badly on purpose. FUN.

Elite Beat Agents

Innovation Toronto (photo by NotSoftGames, who i believe were gunned down in a mafia street war moments after taking this picture)

It wasn’t an incredibly compelling game that i could play for hours, but it was a perfect snack-sized experience for the Jam. i got the concept from the title alone, and figuring out how to play properly was a joy. Good work!

Rider Saves the World

Crazy French-Canadians. This game was from a visiting Montrealer (was his name Rennault?) who created a pretty uninspiring obstacle avoidance game that was delightful in spite of itself, thanks to its ridiculous writing and theme.

You play Rider Motorcycleson, a 70′s-style biker with an afro and a red headband, charging through space astride an angry-looking missile, on his way to save his love. In the second level, you have to take down an alien mothership. The cut-scene introducing that level includes the line by the aliens “We are going to destroy you etc.” i laughed HARD. The cut-scene for the third level is a one-liner where your girlfriend simply says “i’m pregnant.” Again, it had me in stitches. But maybe i was overtired?

Easy Rider

Imagine Easy Rider in space, with witty writing.

The game had some nice touches. When you died, each Continue screen borrowed the mechanic from the level that preceded it. The graphics were very silly. The gameplay was varied. The creator was insane. Lots of pluses there.

i guess i’ve learned that i really favour games with funny writing. Hmm!

Platform Game



i didn’t catch the name of this one, but it was fun. It’s 2-player game with one black character and one white character. You have to co-operate with the other player to reach the top of the vertically-scrolling screen by jumping on platforms. Platforms are either black, white, or beige. The black and white platforms are transparent and you fall right through them, unless the black or white character is standing on the platform. So the black guy could jump up and stand on a transparent black platform to make it solid, so that the white guy could jump up and join him. It was a constant back-and-forth between the players, who essentially had to open doors for each other throughout the level to reach the top. Very nice! And in a few instances, you and your partner had to communicate to time a jump together so that you’d both wind up on the same platform at the same time. It was just pure, wholesome, playable fun. Well done!

My hat’s off to so many people this year – from the organizer who put on this incredible event with NO CHARGE to the participants (??!), to the teams who turned out some great (and many horrendous) games, and to nine of my former students who showed up to give it a shot. (It was great to see them taking the initiative that i accused them of lacking!) Thanks to everyone i met this year, and i hope we can continue to foster a relationship through the monthly Toronto Hand Eye Society meetings until the next jam.

The TOJam Arcade, the public exhibition of the games that were created at the event, is coming up next month. Be there!

Further Playing

The TOJam 5 games will be up on the site eventually. In the meantime, here are the titles i created in past jams:

TOJam 2: Two by Two

Related articles:

TOJam 3: Here Be Dragons

Related articles:

TOJam 4: Bloat.

Related articles:

TOJam 5: Heads (coming soon!)

TENure

IMPORTANT: What’s that ungodly sound coming through my speakers/headphones? Scroll midway down the post and find the Flash piece called Bouncing Baby Boys. Then click on the bouncing ball to stop the sound effect. Then pop back up here and keep reading.

It Begins

i spoke to some students the Toronto chapter IGDA meeting two weeks ago, and it brought back what a terrible struggle it was to bridge the gap between education and career. Last night, i read this obnoxious sob story by Alistair Jones who just wants to realize his dream: to become a video game designer/writer, except without having to do all that hard stuff like programming or drawing. The article is very very long, so i’ll pull a few choice quotes to sum it up for you:

Boo hoo hoo. Life is hard. Waaaahhh wahhh. Violin music. Why won’t anyone give me a job despite my complete lack of ability? Sob sob sob. Colleges are trying to ruin my life. Why does everyone hate me? It must be the world’s problem, not mine. Sniffle sob. Please give me a job in games, because i’m great at playing games.

Like the students at the IGDA meeting, Alistair makes some bad assumptions that are holding him, and many students, back:

  1. An interest in gaming as a hobby has some bearing on my ability to succeed as a game developer.
  2. Someone will hire me straight out of school (or while i’m in school) as a game designer/writer.
  3. Since i trained in x/y/z, the world owes me a living in that field.
  4. i don’t have to be an expert in any one thing … i can dabble in all aspects of game production and design, and land a job.

Reading Alistair’s article and talking to the guys at the IGDA meeting was painful, because it brought to mind my own struggle, and reminded me that i made the same bad assumptions. i had a lousy time in college, like Alistair, and i moaned about it like a little bitch, like Alistair, with badly-composed prose, like Alistair. i hate Alistair. i hate his article. i see too much of myself in it, and it embarrasses me. But through certain twists of fate, i somehow made it … and perhaps, as he matures and hunkers down and does what needs doing, Alistair will make it too.

Making It

As of this month, i became a ten-year veteran of the video game industry. Ten years ago, in April 2000, i accepted a job at Corus Entertainment making video games for the website of their kids’ station, YTV. (YTV is like the Canadian version of Nickelodeon.)

YTV circa 1999

YTV is famous for its (then) live interstitials hosted by PJs (program jockeys, a take on MTV’s VJs/Video Jockeys). Pictured here, PJ Fresh Phil, who many people still ask me about. Yes, i’ve met him. Yes, he’s still preposterously hip.

And as long as i’m bragging, i want to be clear: i’m not talking about ten years in the industry doing industry-related things, like pushing a mop at a video game studio, or making games in my mom’s basement for a few years. i’ve racked up ten solid years of personally designing and creating actual video games in exchange for money. i’m not positive that the story of how that happened could happen again today, but in case it helps any of you, here it is.

Art School Drop-Out

Coming out of high school, i had not taken art. This was due to a conflict with the Performing Arts program which had eaten up all of my electives. i was a drama major, a budding playwright, and had starred in a few musicals by the time i had graduated. i didn’t take computer courses either, except in my final year. The final project for the senior-level course was a video game. While the course was programming-centric, and i had none of the prerequisites, i slipped in by making the case that game development was multi-disciplinary, and that i should be able to take the course as an artist/animator.

So leaving high school, i had no fine arts training and i had muscled my way into one computers course, with no programming knowledge. Naturally, i decided i wanted to be a computer animator.

Toy Story

Toy Story, released a year earlier, had a big impact on my decision.

i applied to the province’s most prestigious art college, and was accepted into their Art Fundamentals survey course (“art is fun for mentals!” as the students called it). The computer animation program was a post-grad course, and the Animation and Illustration programs were filled with actual talented artists. A month before classes started, they offered me a spot in the Illustration program, because someone wasn’t able to pay his tuition, and i was next in line on their ranked list of portfolios. i took the slot. After four months of growing keenly aware that i was out-leagued by far, far better talent, i dropped out.

Lesson: If you’re in over your head, best to admit it early and switch tracks while the damage is minimal.

Community College (or: When Does the Hurting Stop?)

i slid over to another college almost immediately, and took their computer animation program. This was NOT a prestigious school by any means. Clueless teachers proudly plastered the walls with plagiarized student assignments. The classes were filled with international students who didn’t speak English, and ate up the instructors’ time asking them to slowly, clearly explain rudimentary instructions (“Click file … SAVE. No – not ‘shave’ …. “) i had a lousy time.

The program had one interactive course in Director. i really took to it. Lingo, the scripting language, was simple enough to allow me to make button rollovers and responses, which was almost all i needed to make a simple first-person graphic adventure or puzzle game like MYST. So while most other students struggled with Director, i really had a good time with it. Our final assignment in that class was to make a program that had a title screen with five buttons on it. Each of the five buttons would link to a scene demonstrating a different animation type: tweening, mouse-tracking, straight-ahead, motion path, and i forget. i knew the other students would blow off the assignment and animate a bunch of meaningless circles and triangles around the screen (i was right!), so i made something called Bouncing Baby Boys:


[kml_flashembed publishmethod="static" fversion="9.0.0" movie="http://www.untoldentertainment.com/blog/img/2010_04_20/flashbabies.swf" width="550" height="400" targetclass="flashmovie" bgcolor="#FFFFCC"]

Get Adobe Flash player

[/kml_flashembed]

The school ostensibly had a co-op placement program, but like so many schools, they only had three industry contacts which were quickly exhausted. It was up to the students to find their own placements. i found one on my own in the Durham Board of Education (Durham is a district East of Toronto). The school hired me on contract as a technology tutor. i taught junior kindergarten kids how to use a mouse, i taught fourth-grade kids how to use a word processor, and i taught a sixth-grade gifted class how to make animated movies on the computer.

Kindergarten

Today, kids, we’ll learn how to set page margins and right-justify header text.

When that was over, i returned to the college to cut together my demo reel. i purchased a plane ticket and a pass to SIGgraph (Special Interest Group – Computer Graphics), an international conference in Florida where it was rumoured that big studios like Digital Design, Industrial Light and Magic, and PIXAR would hire graduates. i booked the edit room for three days and hastily began cutting my reel together over the weekend – my flight to SIGGraph left Monday. In the middle of that ordeal, the facilities manager kicked me out of the edit suite because i was no longer a student (my co-op placement had ended the week prior). i remember tearfully appealing to the school president in her office to let me finish cutting my reel. She begrudgingly agreed, but warned me that i was never to return to the school. i haven’t. To this day, i’m careful never to mention the name of that school, in case they ever try to claim me as a success story. Karma, friends.

Lesson: don’t take no for an answer, and don’t leave school without a proper portfolio. That portfolio is why you’re paying the money and spending the time.

BJs for Career Advancement: NOT a Myth

SIGGraph was a bust. i managed to weasel my way into a number of parties, including one at the top of the hotel overlooking Walt Disney World, where i spoke to the VP of Disney’s feature animation department. i realized the entire time that i scored a lot of party tickets because the gay men at the conference wanted a piece of my sweet cherry ass. Absolutely true story. (i didn’t give it up though! Let me repeat that fact for absolute clarity: i was then, and remain today, an ass virgin.) Despite meeting with a number of surprisingly high-ranking (and lascivious) people from various studios, i did not land a job at SIGgraph. And despite the header title of this section, i also did not blow anyone to get those tickets.

Gay boy

This is what they actually mean by “stiff competition”.

Lesson: There is always some legendary conference where desirable companies reportedly hire students. GDC has a career fair. i’m sure there are others. Don’t believe the hype. If you’re really that great, you won’t have to leave home to get noticed. And if your portfolio-fu is weak, you’re not getting a job, no matter how well-connected you make yourself. Unless you give up your man-hymen.

Seething at the Ceeb

i had a few misadventures in Toronto trying to find a job. Please understand that my hastily-slapped-together demo reel was HORRIBLE. i wouldn’t have hired me. i had one meeting at the CBC for a job making props for an unfunny show called Royal Canadian Air Farce, which is Canada’s second most toxic by-product next to pulp and paper mill runoff. They wanted signs and posters created with Adobe Illustrator. i showed the producer my hideous demo reel. He suggested i go to school. i told him i’d already been to school. He said i didn’t know how to use Illustrator. i protested that i DID … i was one of the best in my class. But since my portfolio didn’t contain any of my Illustrator pieces, i didn’t get the job. The guy actually said to me “Well, since your portfolio doesn’t have any Illustrator examples, despite what you say, you don’t know how to use Illustrator.” Not “i don’t THINK you know how to use Illustrator” – just “you DON’T know how to use Illustrator.”

Lesson: Tailor your portfolio samples to the job for which you’re applying. Employers can’t take you at your word.

In another instance, a guy went so far as to show me around the office and introduce me to the employees as someone who was going to start working there soon. He never called me back.

Lesson: Be consistent, follow up, and hold people to their promises. And unless there’s ink on a contract, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

At a complete loss, i took a few more jobs with the Board of Education. The second job was teaching kids how to make games and mousetrap cars at a technology summer camp. The third was as an on-site technician for TVOntario’s Virtual Classroom project. i did that for a year.

Lesson: Inertia! Don’t be surprised if your first real job continues from the job you took as your college co-op placement. This means you should try your damndest to make your co-op placement as good as possible.

Old teacher

Objects in education tend to stay in education.

Rock Bottom

i was two years out of computer animation school, and i had nothing to show for it but some experience running an NES emulator during recess to distract two elementary school kids with rage issues from beating up the other kids on the playground. i had a number of near-misses, including one freelance job at City TV (a local Toronto teevee station). My college education had not panned out. i decided to admit defeat and try for a University degree. i enrolled at Trent University, and majored in Cultural Studies for one year, paying tuition with the money i’d made at the Board of Education, and my ongoing job as a clerk at a video rental store in my home town. The boss there kept his Adult section stocked with some disproportionately freaky stuff (in spite of the mostly sexually vanilla population), and screened most of it himself in his office in the basement. He was constantly on my case about my clothes not fitting properly – i had gained a ton of weight in college. This, friends – this was the low point for me. This is when i would have written my Alistair-style sob story on Gamasutra.

Lesson: Don’t write an Alistair-style sob story on Gamasutra. You’re low enough already.

Summer came. i had finished my intro courses in University. Since i had already conceded defeat and had taken the status quo measure of attending University, i figured i’d further submit to mundanity and get a summer job planting evergreen trees in a deforested chunk of Northern Ontario. i had heard it was soulless, back-breaking work, plagued with sunburns and black flies. With utter abandon, i started searching the online job site Monster.ca.

Tree Planting

How i (Almost) Spent My Summer Vacation

The Turning Point

That’s where i found it: a job posting for a game developer. i couldn’t believe my eyes. Could NOT believe them. Monster.ca was in its infancy, and was mostly packed with data-entry jobs and jobs selling knives door-to-door. There was never anything like THIS on that site. An actual game developer position. i freaked out.

Monster

Never settle. Take the best damned door-to-door knife sales position you can find.

The job was to use Macromedia Flash to create video games for YTV.com, a kids website. i spent my teen years watching a lot of YTV, and was smitten with their (then) purple, orange and green colour palette. This was too good to be true. A game developer at YTV. i was going insane.

i wrote a cover letter to them. A spazmodic one. An INSANE cover letter. i packed it with as much enthusiasm and passion as i could muster. It was an absolutely deranged cover letter. i attached my resume, and told them i had a demo reel. (You couldn’t run video online then like you could now, so people had to view your demo reel in person. Today, of course, you MUST put your stuff online, or it will likely cost you the interview). Within the week, YTV called me in for an interview.

Lesson: If the job is really, really important to you, it’s alright to show it. Geek out about it. Don’t send a static, staid letter. Do NOT send your form cover letter. Every employer wants to hire someone who really, REALLY wants to work there. Don’t be afraid to go off-book and fly your freak flag a little.

i brought my friend along he day of the interview, and we went shopping for suitable interview clothes that fit my more considerable stature. This was YTV, so i chose an orange T under a loud Hawaiian shirt, a pair of cargo shorts and some sandals. i must have looked like a cartoon character. And really, that was the point.

Lesson: Dress appropriately for your job interview.

Poochie

This is an actual photo of me from March 2000.

i showed them my demo reel at the interview. They weren’t impressed. No one was. It was a terrible reel. They asked me what my favourite show on YTV was. i had my answer ready: Nanalan’. This impressed them.

Lesson: Research the company before the interview.

They asked me if i knew Flash. i didn’t – i knew Director. BUT, the week of the interview, i had downloaded the free 30-day trial of Flash. i completed the 10 tutorials that shipped with the software. i took all the graphics and animations from the Bouncing Babies piece from my college Director course two years earlier, and recreated it in Flash. i showed it to them. It got me the job.

Lesson: Show the employer exactly what they’re looking for.

i remember the phone call vividly. i remember exactly what i said to the woman who hired me. Through elation and tears of joy, i managed “THANK YOU. Thank you SO much. You’ve changed my life.

Programming by the Seat of My Pants

And that’s how i found myself, on day one of my first job in the game development industry ten years ago, sitting at a desk with my own computer, my own phone, and a contract for a $40k annual salary (which, adjusted for inflation, is like a $41k salary). This was at the peak of the dot com collapse. My official title was “Game Developer”. i had not made a single game in all my life. The first day on the job, the producer asked me to create a game for a financial client who wanted kids to learn the value of saving. i built on what i already knew how to do, and built this, my first-ever professionally-produced video game:


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The goal is to flip all the coins to “heads”. When you flip a coin, all of the coins in the same row and column are flipped. The game has three difficulty levels with three different animated endings. Art, animation, voice-over and sound effects were all by me, with (i think) a deadline of one week.

i learned on the job. i expanded my skillset with every game they asked me to make. i leaned heavily on the expertise of the more experienced game developer there, and barraged him with questions. He was very patient. He told me later that of all the applicants for the job, i was the only one even remotely qualified, as unqualified as i was. No one else showed them any work that was youthful, kiddy and cartoony. No one else showed the same amount of promise or potential.

Lesson: Be in the right place at the right time, and be very, very lucky.

Peter Parker

Wanna be a superhero? Just get bit by a radioactive spider. How hard is that?

Ten Years After

i built over fifty Flash games at Corus for YTV, Treehouse TV (their preschool brand), WNetwork (their women’s brand), and corporate side-projects like The Big Rip collection of kids’ virtual worlds. i have created games for blind children, and games for deaf children. Ten years since landing that first real industry job, i own my own game development studio. i meet people like those two guys wanting to be hired as game designers/writers, and i read articles like Alistair’s, and i wince. It’s a familiar angst. i knew then, and i affirm now, that to get into this industry, you need to be a skilled at one of two things: art or programming. It’s very unusual to skip the queue, so don’t hold out hope. Instead, devote yourself to being useful or talented at something.

Lesson: Is this really your dream? Do you REALLY want to get into this industry? Then stop whining, stop playing World of Warcraft, and stop cooking up new and impossibly large game designs for RPGs and MMOs. Stop mistaking your notebook full of game ideas with actual completed game projects. Stop confusing game playing with game development. Stop equating your knowledge of games with some mystical birthright creating games.

Nerd

i can name every boss character in every Zelda game. That’s a useful skill. Hire me.

Instead, devote yourself completely to doing whatever it bloody well takes to succeed: that means starting small, and finishing something – then starting slightly larger, and finishing something else. You may not have the luxury of doing that on someone else’s dime as a salaried employee, but i guarantee you won’t get where you’re going unless you translate angst into action.

Wanna Play Risk?

i’m a big fan of stepping outside of your comfort zone, in much the same way that i’m a big fan of YOU punching that grizzly bear in the face so that we can enjoy some sweet, stolen salmon for dinner. That is to say, i’m excited about the possible benefits of reward for risk, and i know assuming risk is an important thing to do, but i still makes me afeared.

Fearful squirrel

Since settling into a full-time job ten years ago and sinking into a job coma, the amount of risk i’ve assumed has dropped steadily year after year until at last, to coin a quaint colloquialism, i wouldn’t piss with my pants on fire unless my employer gave me the go-ahead.

The Seven Year Itch

That changed about seven years into the job, when i put my name on the “please fire me” list. For a number of reasons, it was time to go, and i was one of the lucky few who left at the exact right time. But make no mistake: it took stones. i had a daughter in diapers and, i found out later, another little girl on the way. i had a mortgage to pay and a fierce angel dust habit, and i owed money to Timmy Two-Fingers for a rigged boxing bet gone sour. (No … just kidding about the mortgage).

So it was then, after a long absence from risk, i took the very big step of incorporating a company and striking out on my own, instead of finding the next available corporate teat to suckle. And it was terrifying to do that. And it remains terrifying. We’re approaching three years of profitable operation in July, but every year is a nail-biter.

Nail-Biter

(Mmm … nails. Nom nom nom.)

i’m assuming even more risk with our upcoming game Spellirium. As you may know, the project is made possible with funding from the OMDC’s Interactive Digital Media Fund – free, non-repayable money. They’re putting up 50%, which we have to match. We’re matching it with another batch of free money from the SR&ED (Scientific Research and Economic Development) grant, which we earned by twisting technology to our steely will. So the entire budget for the project is essentially paid for. Sounds like very little risk, no?

Because there’s such little financial risk involved, it seems an opportune time to audition some new risks, risk-free … if that makes sense. It might be the angel dust talking.

Scrumptious

In an earlier post, i talked about the first risk we’re assuming – a new (for us) development methodology called Agile/Scrum. This terrifies me. i’ve been absorbing as many videos and articles as i can about it so that i don’t fall completely flat on my face when we start work next week, but it’s a shiny new thing, and it’s apparently difficult to implement and easy to fail at.

Essentially, instead of spending two weeks putting together a rock-solid Game Design Document – a game bible, from which you shall not stray – you describe all the stuff your game is gonna do, you prioritize the list based on value to the player, and then you start building. That’s it. You just start building. And you look back after two weeks and evaluate what went right, and what went wrong. Then you grab more items from the Big List, and keep building. At the end of every two weeks, you have a shippable product. That means, friends, that two weeks from today, you’ll be able to play a shippable version of Spellirium. i promise you, i will suck, but you can start providing your feedback right away, and we’ll be Agile enough to respond. This way, we can find the fun as fast as possible, and spend the rest of our time developing a game that you will find increasingly awesome and worth your time and monays.

Word Game World Logo

(Note: if you like word games and story-based adventurey-type games and would like to be on the SpellCaster mailing list to play these early builds, head over to Word Game World and sign up here. If you DON’T like word games and story-based games, kindly DO NOT sign up. We’d love to get your feedback on other projects, but if you’re not a wordie, please move on. This is not the game you’re looking for.)

We’ll try using an online tool called Pivotal Tracker to help us through the process. It does burn-down charts, which frighten and confuse me by virtue of the very fact that they are charts, and they incorporate the word “burn”. If there are two things that make me nervous in this world, it’s statistics and being set on fire.

i’ll share more about how the Agile/Scrum process is going for us as the project progresses. i can already see we’ll run into some early problems because the start times of our talented artists and programmers are staggered … i’m still trying to figure out how to gracefully fold everyone into the batter. The second problem i’m seeing is somewhat more troubling.

Off-Site Collaboration

In the early days of the company, i was very proud of the fact that we did things differently than our competitors. We paid our employees money, for starters … you wouldn’t believe the number of game developers in this province who are working for free, or for points on royalties that never materialize. Our other point of difference is that we work with everyone in-house. We have ample face-to-face time, giving us the advantage of fast an frequent team communication, so that stuff doesn’t get lost in the email/MSN morass. i was very surprised to learn that many game companies work remotely. Everyone’s on Skype, scattered across bedrooms and coffee shops around the world. It didn’t strike me as an effective way to work.

Chat Roulette

This is what i see when i picture remote collaboration.

Now, due to the requirements of Spellirium and our relatively small office, i’m taking another risk: i need to hire 6 or 7 people, and i can only fit 3 of those people in-house, so half the team needs to be remote. Or i need to hire only midgets, and build bunk-desks.

The prospect of working with people remotely causes me anxiety. i like to have everyone within what i wryly call “strangling distance”. Communication – FAST communication – is very, very important to me, and i’ve been stung too many times by email threads where people’s true intent isn’t adequately conveyed through text, and people get needlessly hurt or frustrated. There’s only so much the mighty happyface can cover:

You’re an absolute idiot.

vs.

You’re an absolute idiot. :)

i’m considering using Google Wave as our online collaboration tool. i know i’ll have to try to get Skype or some other video chat software working so that we can beam at least one guy in via satellite. i’m wary about paying someone money to sit around at home in his underpants eating cheese fidgets and watching daytime soaps when he’s supposed to be making gameage for me, but maybe this is all part of an important process for me of slowly easing up on control and trusting other people a little more? i know other game studio heads who have been burned by remote workers, but i can’t help but think that at the slightest sign of smoke, my reaction will be swift and decisive. Spellirium is too awesome to be plagued by dead weight.

Word.

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